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New chapters

Words by Mercedes Smith

British weaver Jason Collingwood and Japanese potter Akiko Hirai are known internationally as masters of their craft. They are also husband and wife. We talk to them ahead of a rare joint show at New Craftsman Gallery.

I had always considered myself to be a hard worker, until I met Akiko,” says Jason Collingwood. “Without fail she works seven days a week, and long days at that. When we first met it was quite common for her to work through the night before cycling across London to teach at college the next day, and she is still the hardest working person I know.”

Jason is talking affectionately about his wife, Akiko Hirai, who has built a reputation as one of the world’s leading ceramicists, fusing British ceramic traditions with those of her native Japan to make work that is admired by collectors across the world. In perfect parallel to Akiko, Jason too is a Master Craftsperson, having spent his career as a designer and maker of extraordinary handwoven rugs. “When I met Jason, he was already known worldwide,” says Akiko. “Sometimes successful artists can be egotistical, but he has always been very down-to-earth and I have always admired him for that.”

This June, these two leading lights of contemporary craft will exhibit together at New Craftsman Gallery St Ives in a show that marks the end of Jason’s 35-year career as a weaver. “The rugs I have made for this show with Akiko will be the last I ever produce,” says Jason. “I have sold my workshop and decided to move on from rug weaving to new adventures.” Titled Chapters, it offers collectors the very last chance to acquire work by one of the world’s finest textile artists, as well as one of twelve beautiful Moon Jars by Akiko, which change appearance throughout the series in reflection of the lunar cycle, and of the circular completion of her husband’s successful career as a weaver.

“I grew up with weaving all around me,” says Jason, “because my father was a rug weaver, but it wasn’t until I was 18 that I sat on a loom for the first time in my life. There was a six-month period when I worked for my father, but I didn’t weave again until I was 24, and that was 35 years ago.” Since that time, Jason has perfected the art of making beautiful geometric designs by hand. He has rarely exhibited his work but has woven more than 2,000 rugs by commission for private clients, architects and interior designers, including a series of 24 bespoke rugs for the Sheraton hotel in Dar-es Salaam, Tanzania, rugs for luxury Spanish fashion house Loewe, and a collection of rugs for a castle in Switzerland.

“I have always said that my designs are the result of perspiration, not inspiration,” he jokes. “I start off with a blank piece of paper, a blank mind, and just scribble away. If a design looks appealing, I’ll fine tune it. When I create a new design, it doesn’t necessarily have any connection to the previous rug, or the following one. The designs are ‘stand-alone’, there is no theme as such. What does dictate the designs I am able to produce are the loom and the structure the rug is woven in. My rugs are made using a block weave structure, and my loom has a device on it called a ‘shaft switching system’. Both these things mean that I am free to design anything that can be plotted out on squared paper, so for me curves are not an option, I deal in straight lines, though curves can be ‘implied’ by careful use of where these straight lines are placed on the rug.”

Creating handmade works like these requires a great deal of knowledge and skill, and is labour intensive, meaning Jason has had to build an entire lifestyle around creating his works. “Depending on any approaching deadline, the length of my day in the workshop can be very different. I am a morning person, so my alarm goes off at 4.30am – half an hour after Akiko’s! - and I’ll be at the loom between 6.30am and 5pm each day. There is a special feeling at the end of the day, knowing you have produced something that didn’t exist when you first sat at the loom in the morning. It feels like real work, like you have made something tangible”. In addition, Jason would typically spend three or four months of each year lecturing in America, where the majority of his commissions come from. “Whilst teaching I would pick up commissions for my rugs along the way, and back in the UK I would weave the commissions, then the next trip to the USA would start.”

While their work ethics are similar, Jason and Akiko’s chosen crafts require a very different ethos in terms of design and creation. “The loom is a very precise tool,” Jason explains, “whilst the potter is, to some degree, at the mercy of the kiln because each firing will produce slightly different results.”

“Until I met Jason, I knew nothing about weaving,” says Akiko, “but now I know that making even a simple pattern involves so much knowledge and skill. Jason weaves all his knowledge into his beautiful rugs, but weaving cannot be spontaneous in the way that ceramics can. Working with clay requires a very different mental process.

“The physicality of ceramics, and the chemical reactions involved in creating a final piece, mean that there can never be a single outcome. Clay is complex and shows the imprints of process, of what the materials have gone through, which I think reflects the way our feelings and consciousness change when our physical state of biochemistry changes. My ceramics are very personal and reflect feelings that can’t otherwise be expressed in words.” In the creation of her distinctive Moon Jars and functional ceramics, Akiko is known for achieving subtle changes in each work by alternating her kiln atmosphere when firing, and allowing varying amounts of impurity in the clay to freely affect the surface detail of each work. “People often say that my ceramics are ‘honest’,” says Akiko.

“I don’t know how I should interpret that, but certainly what you see in my work is what I am thinking or feeling when I create it. It has taken me a long time to accumulate the vocabulary of ceramics, and I am still learning, which I love, and this endless learning is what has made me commit to a life in ceramics.” This commitment, like Jason’s, defines Akiko’s lifestyle day in and day out, year in and year out. “I work seven days a week and every day is more or less the same. I get up at 4am, do my foreign language lesson, make coffee, go to my local lido and swim for an hour, get back home, do some housework and then walk to my studio for 8.30am.

My daily production plan depends on the exhibition or orders I have next. I usually have four or five solo exhibitions a year, booked two years in advance, and I have stopped teaching completely because I can’t fit it into my schedule any longer. I am very lucky in that I am offered interesting new exhibition opportunities every year, but trying to squeeze everything in is actually becoming increasingly difficult!”

“Over the years,” adds Jason, “as Akiko has become more successful, demand on her time has increased and the way she keeps all those plates spinning is amazing to me. She has very high standards, so if she doesn’t like something it gets smashed – I admire that sort of quality control. Seeing how physical her work is, particularly with the large moon jars, is very impressive – just watching her lift one into the kiln is pretty nerve wracking. I am very proud of her achievements, and I quite enjoy being introduced as Akiko’s husband. It takes all the pressure off me.”

See Chapters from 27 May to 25 June at New Craftsman Gallery, 24 Fore St, St Ives, TR26 1HE.


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